Malaysia’s election: Barisan Nasional’s paltry win

Author: Arnold Puyok, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak

The recent Malaysian election saw the ruling party Barisan Nasional (BN) retain its hold on power for another term after winning 133 out of 222 federal seats.

Protestors wave flags as they gather at a stadium during a rally in Kuala Lumpur on 25 May 2013 to protest against the results of the  general election. Tens of thousands of people rallied near the capital on Saturday night against alleged electoral fraud, further raising the political temperature after divisive recent polls. (Photo: AAP)

Malaysia’s first-past-the-post system sealed BN’s victory, despite the fact that Pakatan Rakyat (PR), the opposing coalition, won 54 per cent of the popular vote over BN’s 46 per cent.

PR’s de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim has since alleged that the election was tainted with countless irregularities such as erasable indelible ink, vote-buying, unregistered ballot boxes, and sabotage by officials from the Election Commission (EC). It seems that Anwar will not concede defeat easily. He has organised massive rallies that have attracted thousands of Malaysians to protest the election results. It remains to be seen how far Anwar can go. Not all members in PR support mass rallies to challenge the election results. The new government has also warned that it will not tolerate any attempt to overthrow the government through illegal street protests. And for many ordinary Malaysians, the election is over, and it is time to move on.

The real question is why, despite the groundswell of support for PR, did it still fail to win the election? The answer lies in BN’s entrenched influence in the system.

First, BN has complete control over the electronic media outlets TV1, TV2, TV3, and to some extent ASTRO. News reports on these outlets are one-sided and often appear to be a form of government propaganda. BN-controlled print media such as Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian are also often used to attack the opposition and not to report objective news. This has left the opposition with no choice but to depend on alternative media channels such as YouTube, blogs, and social networking sites to reach the public. But in rural areas without internet coverage, voters continue to depend on information disseminated by BN-controlled media organisations.

Additionally, unlike other Commonwealth countries with Westminster systems, Malaysia does not have clear guidelines to regulate the conduct of caretaker governments once parliament is dissolved. In the lead-up to the election, BN was accused of misusing government vehicles and staff during campaigning, and disbursing government funds to entice the voters. This is a fairly ‘normal’ practice for politicians from both sides of the political divide, given that the EC appears to lack the resolve to regulate the use of money in campaigning. In the 2013 election BN supporters were allegedly given between RM50 and RM100 to vote for BN. For rural voters, who form the large bulk of support for BN, RM50 is a lot of money. Some were even promised development aid such as roof zincs and water tanks if they could ‘prove’ that they had voted for BN.

Malaysia’s electoral system is also designed to help BN remain in power. The largest party in BN, UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), knows that most of its support comes from the rural Malay voters. Through a process of electoral re-delineation — or ‘gerrymandering’ — BN has created more rural Malay areas, even though the number of voters in these areas is disproportionately small compared to urban areas. This practice of skewing electoral boundaries in favour of BN is glaringly evident in Sabah — a ‘fixed deposit’ state for BN. UMNO needed to win more Malay seats to strengthen its grip on Sabah. Thus, more Malay seats were created at the expense of the non-Malay constituencies. All UMNO needed to do to form a government with a simple majority in the 60-seat Sabah Legislative Assembly was to win the 32 Malay-majority seats.

It is still possible for BN to win back the support of disgruntled voters who feel as though BN’s victory was improperly obtained.

First, BN has to address the alleged fraudulent practices in the electoral system. Asking the voters to leave the country if they are not happy with the way things are done in Malaysia is certainly not the way to improve the system’s weaknesses. Second, rather than attributing the major swing of Chinese support away from BN to ungratefulness and racism, BN should try and find out why Chinese voters are dissatisfied. In tackling this issue, BN must not neglect those who voted against it in Sabah and Sarawak. Cutting development funds and withdrawing infrastructural projects in areas where BN did not win — a practice of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s administration — is childish and runs counter to BN’s ‘People First’ pledge. Third, BN must act swiftly to initiate the various reforms in its election manifesto.

If BN can address all of these three issues boldly and effectively, it might be accepted by Malaysians as the ‘legitimate’ winner of the election. Otherwise, Malaysians have every reason to challenge the election results.

Arnold Puyok is Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.